1. Buffy Sainte-Marie – Power in the Blood (True North). There are plenty of zeitgeist reasons why this tops my list. A successful comeback from a 74-year-old woman who we all once watched breastfeed on Sesame Street! With an album that opens with a re-recording of the first track on her first album, which was released 51 fucking years ago! With songs that directly reference Idle No More! With guitars that sound as loud as Sleater-Kinney! Finally, she won the Polaris Music Prize, beating out Drake—and a bunch of others we didn’t expected to win anyway!
But let’s not confuse the news with the music itself. There are plenty of reasons why Buffy is boss. It’s her first record in seven years, and only her third since 1992, so she’s obviously had a lot of time to let these songs ripen, as she would say, to what we hear here. She also rewrote and borrowed from songs dating back to the mid-’70s, from a series of (excellent) albums released during her commercial low. She hired Michael Phillip Wojewoda (Rheostatics) as one of three producers and to mix the entire project; as a result, Blood has serious muscle that her recordings have lacked for decades. Yes, there are guitars louder than any of her contemporaries, but there is also a wistful country song and a campfire song reimagined as electronic trance and a song that sounds like a Broadway musical’s closing number and a Vocoder reminiscent of both Neil Young’s Trans and T-Pain and … wait, is that a UB40 cover?
The songs are great, many of them earworms. The production and performances are fantastic. But what puts this on top is the fact that I still get chills listening to certain tracks; some get me teary on a regular basis. I’m glad I wasn’t the only one. Power in the Blood lifts her up where she belongs—at the top.
Original review here.
My interview here.
2. Sleater-Kinney – No Cities to Love (Sub Pop). If you’re going to reunite, you’d better go big or go home. Which is why the ladies in Sleater-Kinney came howling back from a hiatus with a roar of a record that made me wonder whether I’d actually enjoyed any rock music at all in recent years. Pretty sure I didn’t—at least not compared to this.
Original review here.
My interview with Corin Tucker here.
My article on “The return of the riot grrrl” for Maclean’s is here.
3. Mbongwana Star – From Kinshasa (Nonesuch). When a young Congolese guitarist steeped in psychedelia gets together with an Irish electronic producer and two older Kinshasa men who toured the world with a band comprised of formerly homeless polio victims who made their own instruments (Staff Benda Bilili), you get a thoroughly trippy and modern mashup that transcends all boundaries. Original review here.
4. Whitehorse – Leave No Bridge Unburned (Six Shooter). Two veteran performers join forces and put out a better album than either one ever did as a solo artist—that would be Luke Doucet and Melissa McClelland’s debut as Whitehorse, one of the best records of 2012. This time out their producer (Gus Van Go) told them to go home and write better songs—and they did. Spaghetti Western guitar, Pixies riffs, Bo Diddley beats, country swing and rockabilly rave-ups all served with the best male-female harmonies this side of Low. Original review here.
5. Vince Staples – Summertime ’06 (Def Jam). Vince Staples—no hyperbolic handle here, just his birth name—is a 21-year-old MC from Long Beach rapping about thug life. That he does so better than most is not that unusual. But it’s the music behind him, produced largely by Kanye West acolyte No I.D., that puts Staples’s debut album miles ahead of every other hip-hop album this year—yes, even Kendrick’s, which for all its ambition, doesn’t exactly leave room to breathe. Some beats recall the best work No I.D. has done for Kanye, Pusha T and Common; some are to-be-expected sonic signposts of 2015. But others draw heavily on Latin rhythms, post-punk dub reggae, goth new wave, late-night Isaac Hayes soul, New Orleans funk, Aphex Twin—literally anything goes here. But Staples and his crew keep it sparse, never suffocating his flow, never feeling the need to do everything all the time. Original review here.
6. Terra Lightfoot – Every Time My Mind Runs Wild (Sonic Unyon). Well, that was quite the year, wasn’t it? In December 2014, practically no one knew the name of this Hamilton singer-songwriter. Released in April, this album got her into all the right summer festivals, where she slayed audiences and peers at every turn. She was invited to play Massey Hall and with the Hamilton Orchestra and she sang with the reunited Rheostatics. It’s all because of her powerhouse performance on this record, where her unique, androgynous voice shines and soars, where she made a point of letting everyone know that she plays all the guitars, where she asserts herself as one of the only people in 60 years of rock’n’roll who know how to kick ass in waltz time, where every barnburner rocker is matched by a devastatingly beautiful ballad like “NFB.” It was a very good year. Original review here.
7. Alabama Shakes – Sound and Color (ATO). Sound and Color opens with the sound of—wait a minute, what? Vibraphone and upright bass. Then, over a slow, syncopated beat and a string section, Howard slips into a sonic rapture, emulating Prince and Al Green, singing about synaesthesia and sounding splendorous while doing so. It’s slow-burn, psychedelic soul, and it’s your first clue that this is not a garage rock record. Brittany Howard’s voice explores masculine depths and what sounds like soaring falsetto—many of the slow jams here owe some debts to fellow Southern soul space cadets D’Angelo and Erykah Badu. She snarls like the Strokes on “The Greatest”; she slinks like Norah Jones on “This Feeling.” The music keeps you guessing: just when you think it’s going to be an R&B record, some Southern rock takes over. Just when you think it’s going to be ballad-heavy, a rave-up comes next. On the penultimate track “Gemini,” things get downright spacey and trippy for more than six minutes, like a Funkadelic deep cut, culminating in a fuzzed-out, droning guitar solo. Full review here.
8. Michelle McAdorey – Into Her Future (DWR). One of the most underrated, nearly forgotten bands of the late ’80s and early ’90s is Crash Vegas, who put out three equally excellent and drastically different records during their time together. While guitarist Colin Cripps went on to play with Kathleen Edwards and Blue Rodeo (and now fronts the ace instrumental group C+C), singer Michelle McAdorey put out two understated, experimental folk records about 15 years ago and then retreated to raise a family. This comeback reunites her with Crash Vegas co-founder Greg Keelor; not surprisingly, it sounds similar to the 1989 debut, Red Earth, steeped in British folk rock and psychedelic country. “This life goes by like a fast wind,” she sings. Which is why it’s such a joy to have such a talent as hers blow back into our lives.
My interview with McAdorey is here.
9. Geoff Berner – We Are Going to Bremen to Be Musicians (Coax). In which the veteran Vancouver accordionist and purveyor of radical Jewish culture pulls out all the stops, with his most acerbic satire to date (and that’s saying something) matched with a killer band and Socalled’s production, all of which dares us to laugh in spite at the horrors and hypocrisies of the world. While most musicians are content to couch their politics in vagaries, Berner goes directly for the jugular—and invites us all to drink the wine. Full review here.
10. Miguel – Wildheart (Sony). In a year when the cocaine-fuelled revenge porn of The Weeknd was considered sexy and suitable for prime time, thank God we have Miguel. Wildheart is sensual and sumptuous, collapsing the last 50 years of R&B, from the psychedelic period to Prince to Frank Ocean, into California dreams and sunbaked sonic textures. Original review is here.
11. Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly (Universal). “Loving you is complicated.” Sure is, when you make an album this ambitious, this eclectic, an album filled with urgency and political bile and insight and—oh my God, it sounds like the guy is in such a hurry to stuff everything in there that he’s going to have a breakdown. Oh wait! He actually is having a breakdown! To Pimp a Butterfly is an incredible work of art and a zeitgeist record of 2015, but it can also be suffocating and unnecessarily dense; even the most buoyant tracks here are often joyless (exception: “King Kunta”). I’m only saying all of this because every other year-end list where this appears at the top will tell you How Important It Is—which is absolutely true, for reasons both lyrical and musical. But it’s not a record I’m ever likely to throw on for pleasure. My original review here. Highly recommended further reading (not by me, by Justin Charity) about the “must-read” album of 2015 is here.
12. Nozinja – Nozinja Lodge (Warp). This is the most exuberant beat music I’ve ever heard in my life, but I wouldn’t begin to know how to dance to it; these BPMs will break your legs, guaranteed. Instead, I’ll just stand here and shiver and quake and vibrate and let those tumbling drums and percussive synth sounds wash over me, the strange shangaan synthesis of South African township jive and ’90s jungle and modern EDM adding up to a glorious cacophony. Original review here.
13. Scott Merritt – Of (independent). If this was merely a perfectly arranged and produced album performed primarily on the much-maligned ukulele, it would be one thing to hear Merritt’s magical hands extract delicacy and intricacy out of those four strings. But when a songwriter of Merritt’s calibre saves up more than a decade of sketches and brings them to fruition, we’re obviously witness to the best the man has to offer. For a record with no percussion and comprised largely of languid tempos, the rhythms are pulsing and surprisingly strong on a such a quiet record, with the Cowboy Junkies’ secret weapon, Jeff Bird, playing judicious upright bass. There’s a song on here, “Meteor,” that I first heard Merritt play live more than 10 years ago—and I instantly remembered the melody and lyric vividly. Surely, I thought, I know this song from a previous album? Nope. That song stuck with me, with only one impression, for more than a decade. Always a good sign.
14. Tunde Olaniran – Transgressor (Quite Scientific). Didn’t see this one coming: is the best debut album of 2015 from a genre-hopping Nigerian-American from Flint, Michigan, who grew up in Germany and the U.K., and works at Planned Parenthood by day while making music that’s an amalgam of Missy Elliott, Santigold, Danny Brown and Rick James? Oh, and he also designs the costumes for his live dancers, for whom he does the choreography. He’s an outstanding singer—as good or better than The Weeknd’s Abel Tesfaye or Gnarls Barkley’s Cee-Lo Green, the two singers he resembles the most—and a decent rapper. But it’s his production that sets him far apart, infusing what is ostensibly modern R&B with New Orleans bounce and Peter Gabriel-ish art rock and Kanye-level avant-garde soundscapes and gospel backing vocals and huge pop hooks with the odd banjo or kalimba thrown in for good measure. Full review here.
15. Torres – Sprinter (Arts and Crafts). ’90s grunge revivalism sucks. Who is going to redeem the real legacy of Nirvana, of the Breeders, of PJ Harvey, of the weirdoes who whispered and howled and had eerie pop melodies under crushing electric guitars? 24-year-old Mackenzie Scott performs and records as Torres, and her latest record is produced by Rob Ellis of PJ Harvey’s band. The music is monstrous, and the lyrics detail turmoil to match. “There’s freedom to and freedom from,” she sings, “freedom to run from everyone,” and much of Sprinter is about running away from sour situations and grappling with unresolved emotional baggage. Full review here.
16. Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit and Think, Sometimes I Just Sit (Sony). “Put me on a pedestal, I’ll only disappoint you!” The best chorus lyric of 2015 put a self-deprecating sentiment on top of a crushing grunge anthem, and could easily set this Australian singer up to be a novelty one-hit wonder. Her deadpan vocals and seemingly stream-of-consciousness lyrics suggest a slacker who’d be happy never to stray far from her Melbourne home—but there’s far too much craft here for that to be true, from her clever couplets to the fact that her songs owe as much to Lucinda Williams and Lou Reed as they do to Kurt Cobain or Pavement. Often after a pedestal-ascending debut album like this, disappointment is all that’s left—but that seems highly unlikely in this case. Original review here.
17. Majical Cloudz – Are You Alone? (Arts and Crafts). “What’s the point of a sad, sad song?” asks Devon Welsh, the man with the odd inclination to call his musical project Majical Cloudz. The point, young man, is as old as the blues itself—and though Welsh’s music owes more to Brian Eno and Blade Runner than it does Robert Johnson or Howlin’ Wolf. Yet Welsh’s incantations are as ghostly and haunting as any blues, though his lyrics are very 21st-century confessional, a mix of maudlin moroseness and emo earnestness, populated by “red wine and sleeping pills … cheap sex and sad films.” Welsh has a natural magnetism, a voice strong enough to sell the material—which consistently conjures feelings of a 3 a.m. soul-baring session with some stranger with whom you just bonded at a bar. The vocals are uncomfortably bare against a sparse sonic backdrop of droning organs, swooshing synths and arrhythmic electronic beats. In his videos, Welsh likes to stare directly into the camera for three straight minutes; his record achieves the same effect aurally. Full review here.
18. Afiara Quartet and Skratch Bastid – Spin Cycle (Centrediscs). String quartets have an inherently nimble nature that all small ensembles do, which makes their work easier to isolate and pull apart—especially if you’re doing so with their complete participation. DJ Skratch Bastid will take an eight-bar riff and loop it, then take the violin line and make it sing in new ways with pitch shifting, while bringing in sampled drums and keyboards and anything else he likes. Obviously the remixes are the real draw here, but the original works—by Dinuk Wijeratne, Laura Silberberg, Rob Teehan and Kevin Lau—stand entirely on their own merit, and not just as remix fodder. It’s there that Afiara shows off their subtle and dynamic side, where they prove that they’re not just brash players who secretly want to be in a rock band. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Full review here.
19. Destroyer – Poison Season (Merge). Poison Season sounds like Dan Bejar’s greatest hits, reinterpreted by his fiery band of the last five years: trumpeter JP Carter (Dan Mangan), saxophonist Joseph Shabason (Diana), Black Mountain drummer Josh Wells and long-time collaborators Nick Bragg (guitar), David Carswell (guitar), Ted Bois (keys) and John Collins (bass). But it is hardly just a journey to the past: it’s about Bejar—an artist who muses openly, on and off his records, about the frivolity of the music business and insecurity about his own muse—being completely comfortable in his own skin, finessing the finest points from his discography and pushing toward the future without changing the core of what has made him so compelling for the last 20 years. Full review here.
20. Lianne La Havas – Blood (Warner). It’s hard to top Miguel in the sexy record category, but this woman comes close. A class act, from start to finish, who shares space with Shirley Bassey, Mary J. Blige and Janelle Monae. Original review here.
Runners-up, in alphabetical order:
Couer de Pirate – Roses (Dare to Care). Beatrice Martin’s peppy, glossy pop is not entirely my cup of meat, but I feel like there’s an objective excellence here, in songcraft, production and performance. Much has been made about the fact that more than half these songs are in English, not her native French, but I’d be surprised if these weren’t hits in any language. Full review here.
Deradoorian – The Expanding Flower Planet (Anticon). Balkan harmonies, Eastern melodies and psychedelic folk arrangements all shape this remarkable debut by this ex-Dirty Projector. Original review here.
Keita Juma – Chaos Theory (independent). Chaos Theory is a hip-hop haunted house, Timbaland on acid, the MC spitting verse in a fun-house mirror. Keita Juma’s beats generally bounce all over the place; he’s a wildly inventive producer who often changes direction entirely in the middle of a track—check the avant-garde “YReWeOnThisBeach,” where the relaxed, charismatic MC finds himself adrift in the Canadian wilderness, searching for inspiration. Wherever he finds it, Keita Juma manages to create truly haunting, hallucinogenic hip-hop, the likes of which is all too rare in this country or anywhere else. Full review here.
Jean Leloup – À Paradis City (Grosse Boîte). A Paradis City is such a refreshing, welcoming record: Leloup, a huge rock star in his native Quebec, writes anthemic songs that never succumb to bombast or weighty instrumentation—even when he calls in the choirs or string sections. There are quiet folk songs here, midtempo rockers, and a triumphant title track that shows, among other things, how much Sam Roberts learned from Leloup. Full review here.
Mac McCaughan – Non-Believers (Merge). Words you will never hear in the Durham, N.C., offices of Merge Records: “Oh crap, the boss wants us to put out another one of his own records.” The Superchunk frontman made his name playing incredibly loud, overdriven punk guitar and singing slightly higher than his range would allow: here, he lets his lower range luxuriate, takes guitar inspiration from ’80s Brits like Johnny Marr and Robert Smith, and his overall aesthetic from New Zealand like The Clean, the Tall Dwarfs and the 3Ds. This is the best record he’s made in years. Full review here.
Tami Nielsen – Dynamite! (Outside). Nielsen, a Canadian expat who’s built a career in New Zealand, is a throwback; everything on this, her first Canadian release, is steeped in ’50s rockabilly and Nashville, and she’s got it down pat: the bare-bones production, the ace band, and a showstopper of a voice that could fill any room without a microphone. Her lyrics might be well-worn tropes—songs about a heart the size of Texas and lipstick on your collar—but the melodies, arrangements, and especially her Patsy Cline-esque vocals are all fantastic. Full review here.
Siskiyou – Nervous (Constellation). Sure sounds nervous. Anxious, even. Worried. And yet determined to plough through whatever weird situation we all find ourselves in, surrounded by spooky soundscapes on this, the third album by Vancouver’s Siskiyou. Fronted by former Great Lake Swimmers drummer Colin Huebert (and featuring that band’s string player, Erik Arnesen), Siskiyou maintains a tension throughout Nervous, regardless of tempo or arrangement, major key or minor. Opening track “Deserter” begins with a haunting children’s choir, leading into a bass line borrowed from The Cure’s “Fascination Street” before Huebert’s hushed vocals begin the verses. The tune gets more animated as it proceeds, with the choir singing off-beat shots, Colin Stetson’s baritone sax taking the solo, and ending with a ghostly coda with just Huebert and electric guitar. Full review here.
Kamasi Washington – The Epic (Brainfeeder). The bandleader for Kendrick Lamar’s jazz excursions blows everyone away with this triple album featuring his eight-piece band, a 32-piece orchestra, a 20-person choir and a variety of styles that showcase not only his skills but his songwriting. The Epic, indeed. Full review here.
Tony Wilson 6tet – A Day’s Life (Drip Audio). Some of Canada’s finest improve players assemble for this suite of songs by this Vancouver guitarist: 2015 MVP JP Carter (Destroyer, Siskiyou, Dan Mangan), Tanya Tagaq sideman Jesse Zubot, cellist Peggy Lee, Skye Brooks on drums and Russell Sholberg on bass. The album is meant as a portrait of their hometown’s troubled Downtown Eastside, and the delicate dance of life that plays out there. So we get plaintive, melodic moments, bursts of noise and chaos, and dips into traditional jazz and country, with each of these masters complementing each other perfectly. Original review here.
Young Guv – Ripe 4 Luv (Slumberland). Not what you might expect from a guitarist in Fucked Up: these eight summery pop songs, most sung in a falsetto and with Teenage Fanclub harmonies, sound like they belong on some 1982 AM-radio mix tape with Prince, Rick Springfield, Adam Ant and Lindsey Buckingham. Things take a slightly weirder turn on closing track Wrong Crowd, with its meandering saxophone and someone mumbling in French over a pseudo-Sade groove. Full review here.
Album that would likely top this list if I was 25 years old: Titus Andronicus – The Most Lamentable Tragedy (Merge). Reviewed here.
Album that would likely be on this list but that I’ve purposely avoided until I have some down time to actually absorb it, as well as see her in concert next week: Joanna Newsom – Divers (Drag City).
5 albums of 2014 that I didn’t discover and/or fully appreciate until 2015, and subsequently played to death:
Lydia Ainsworth – Right From Real (Arbutus). Reviewed here.
Salomé Leclerc – 27 fois l’aurore (Audiogram). Reviewed here.
Tre Mission – Stigmata (Ninja Tune). Reviewed here.
Pierre Kwenders - Le Dernier empereur bantou (Bonsound). Reviewed here.
2015 alphabetical playlist of tracks not featured above:
Belle and Sebastian – “Nobody’s Empire”
Boogat feat. Pierre Kwenders – “Londres”
Bully – “I Remember”
Alessia Cara – “Here”
Car Seat Headrest – “Times to Die”
Drake and/or Erykah Badu – “Hotline Bling”
The Elwins – “So Down Low”
Evening Hymns – “If I Were a Portal”
FFS – “Johnny Delusional”
John Grant – “Disappointing”
Grimes – “Flesh Without Blood”
Ibeyi – “River”
Andy Kim – “Why Can’t I”
Low – “The Innocents”
Katie Moore – “Talked All Night” (not available, but here's "Leaving" instead)
Peaches – “Close Up”
Petite Noir – “Chess”
Shamir – “Demon”
The Weather Station - "Way It Is, Way It Could Be"
The Weeknd – “Can’t Feel My Face”